For the Birds Radio Program: Signs of Spring 2005
Signs of Spring
This has been the most extraordinary winter I’ve ever seen—on one single day I saw more Great Gray Owls than I’d seen in an entire lifetime before. I added a Boreal Owl to my yard list, and have had the loveliest time watching Hawk Owls. Of course, it’s been hard on many of the owls—being so abundant, they’ve been rather crowded, and some have ended up in inappropriate habitat, forced to feed on unusual prey items. And because so many meadow voles live in ditches, the Great Gray Owls are drawn to roadsides, and an unprecedented number have been killed or injured by cars.
However you look at it, this has been an intense season. But now it seems to be drawing to a close. There are still plenty of owls about, especially in Aitkin County in Minnesota and around Crex Meadows in Wisconsin. But they are thinning out now, and hawks are starting to return—on March 9, I saw a beautiful adult male Northern Harrier gliding over a field in the bog where a Hawk Owl had been hunting a week ago.
Even though the temperatures have been below freezing for the past few days, dirt roads are starting to soften, and the snow cover is crumbling and slowly disappearing. Our end of Lake Superior seems to have given up on freezing up, and streams that had been ice-covered are open again. The first flocks of robins have been appearing, and as the average temperature rises above 36 or 37 degrees, the big push of robins and geese will induce spring fever.
Finch flocks are thinning out now, which is good because there’s been a rather big outbreak of salmonella over much of the continent. Even people who keep their feeders meticulously clean have been finding dead and dying birds. I’ve been letting my feeders go dry every few days so my own flocks haven’t been too large anymore—I’m more nervous this year because suddenly a flock of over 20 pigeons has been coming, and disease organisms can flourish in their droppings. Other than that, pigeons don’t pose much of an ecological problem to other wildlife, so even though they’re introduced, I don’t mind having them around, but would just as soon not have so many. I’m not sure where they roost and nest—my own house doesn’t have appropriate crevices for them.
I’ve woken up several times in the past week to the sound of singing chickadees. They of course sing in January and February, but the songs become more insistent in March, and the earlier sunrise makes it easier to hear them before I get up. Chickadee flocks are still hanging out together, but pairs are occasionally parting ways for a little while, as they check out potential nest cavities, though no matter how romantic they may feel, pairs still split up at nighttime—chickadees are solitary sleepers. Woodpeckers are drumming, Pine Siskins are singing their zippy tunes, and spring is seeping into the winter air. For a few weeks, we may not know from one day to the next which season it is, but eventually the birds and the weather will sort it out. Even on wintry days we’ll hear some songs and tapping, and new snow won’t last more than a week or so. Little by little spring will dominate the wrestling match, and the gray and white landscape will suddenly be washed with green and the hardships of winter will be supplanted by the more joyous if equally overbearing responsibilities of nesting and raising young. And even as this year’s amazing owl invasion ends, the survivors will be pairing off, ensuring wonderful winters to come.